Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Price of Pleasure reviewed, plus, an actual "honest and nonjudgmental" documentary on porn

First reviews of The Price of Pleasure

Several reviews have come out from people who have seen The Price of Pleasure at the few engagements its actually played so far. A review here by Go-To-Girl (aka Guli Fager), a sex-poz blogger and freelance writer who is new to me, but I will definitely read more of in the future. She somehow managed to score an invite to the Austin premier of The Price of Pleasure from Robert Jensen himself, interestingly, though she doesn't sound at all sympathetic to his overall view of sexuality or porn. Another review here from the Montreal Gazette, and here, from the blog Culture @ MontrĂ©al. The consensus seems to be that the documentary is anything but "honest and nonjudgmental". And lest you think I'm cherry-picking, Google it yourself – I have yet to see a review that has much good to say about the spin this documentary puts on the issue.

(Chris from Sex in the Public Square also posts his impressions here, though like me, he's only seen the trailer and website and is quite familiar with the figures behind it.)

One interjection here, to head off a possible canard by the anti-porn folks – I'm not actually trying to discourage anybody from going and seeing The Price of Pleasure. In fact, I'm definitely going to make a point of seeing it, if it comes to my area, or if it gets a proper DVD release or is made available on the web, and I encourage others to do likewise. The film is supposed to get a proper release after circulating through the film festival circuit, at lease according to a post by Robert Wosnitzer on the TPoP forum. (And, yes, they do have a forum which they claim is open to "conversations and debates" concerning the film. If anybody wants to take advantage of this rare exception to the usual closed moderation policy of radical feminist blogs, the forum can be found here.)

9 to 5: Days in Porn

I also see from the reviews from the Montreal Film Festival that there is in fact another documentary on the industry nearing release, 9 to 5: Days in Porn. Unlike The Price of Pleasure, which seems to disproportionately focus on the opinions of the "chattering class", this doc really does focus on people working in the porn industry, both on the performing and production end. The focus is on the mainstream LA industry, though it also includes some coverage of the burgeoning Czech porn industry.

This doc also claims "not to judge, but to observe" and seems to succeed in this regard much more so than The Price of Pleasure. Nonetheless, its take on performers and other people in the porn industry seems to be pretty positive, something I have little doubt the antis will find fault with. (I suppose they might also find fault with the fact that neither Shelly Lubin nor her cohorts were included, though interestingly, The Price of Pleasure doesn't include any of those people, either.)

And while this definitely can be seen as a pro-porn documentary, I think its pro-porn in the best sense – it doesn't look like a fluff piece along the lines of HBO's Cathouse, but rather a realistic, unflinching look at the porn industry as work and the performers as workers with a variety of motivations for being in the porn industry. Nor does the documentary shy away from the nature of some of the product, for example, showing Jim Powers at work on an installment of the White Trash Whore series.

9 to 5 includes interviews with some of the more articulate and self-aware voices in the porn world, such as John Stagliano, Sharon Mitchell, Belladonna, and Sasha Grey. The latter two I think are particularly important, because these are two very self-aware, interesting women who have been the target of some very distorted coverage by the mainstream media, which is often used as political hay by the antis as a result.

According to some of the reviews, 9 to 5 is still in the editing process and the version shown at the Montreal Festival is a somewhat longish cut, so it maybe a few months at least before this goes into regular release. Though, personally, considering who's interviewed here, I like the fact that they shot a whole bunch of interview footage and I hope a lot of it ends up being included as DVD extras when that's finally released.

Even more films

Yet another documentary on the porn industry, this time a short one, has recently been made in the Czech Republic, Who is afraid of Ashley Lightspeed?, which describes itself as "A little superficial reportage from the big superficial world of Czech porn business." This doc covers several figures in the Czech porn industry, but focuses on Katerina Strougalova, aka Ashley Lightspeed, a social work student who was quite active in web porn a couple of years ago, and who's still one of the more popular models in the Central European glamor porn genre. She had some publicity in the Czech Republic about a year and a half ago when some of the local tabloids decided to out her as a porn star, using her real name. This actually led to her university threatening to expel her on "morals" grounds, and I'm not entirely sure what the outcome of that was.

This film is actually viewable or downloadable in its entirety from the above-mentioned website, however, its entirely in Czech with no subtitles. If you're part of the 99.8% of the world's population that's non-Czech-speaking, you're kind of out of luck in terms of understanding what anybody is saying. Still, you can glean a lot just from viewing it, and I'm struck by how much the Czech porn industry looks pretty much like the American one.

And getting away from documentaries, there's a comedy/indie flick about feminist porn called Slippery Slope that's just made it onto DVD. An interview with the filmmaker, Sarah Schenck, went up a few days ago on the Hip Slope Mama blog and is worth a look.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Antiporn Documentary: The Price of Pleasure

Well, the documentary we've been hearing about from the APRF crowd for the last – what, 4 years, at least – has finally been finished. This was the one that was being put together by Chyng Sun a few years back, and more recently by Robert Jensen and Miguel Picker. Website here:

Trailer here.

The press kit promises, "Honest and nonjudgmental, the film paints both a nuanced and complex portrait of how pleasure and pain, commerce and power, and liberty and responsibility are intertwined in the most intimate aspects of human relations." But one look at the who the writers are (Chyng Sun and Robert Wosnitzer), not to mention the obvious slant even in the trailer, belies the idea that there's anything "honest and nonjudgmental" going on here.

Witnesses for the prosecution are, not unexpectedly, Robert Jensen and Gail Dines, but Pamela Paul, Ariel Levy, and Sarah Katherine Lewis are also brought in to further the case against porn and the sex industry. (And apparently the much-circulated video of the anti-porn statement by Chomsky is from this film also.) Interestingly, the documentary also feature some pro-porn folks, most notably, our own Ernest Greene, who, based on the trailer at least, seems to get some good points in, though I have no idea what his original interview versus what made it into the film is like. Joanna Angel seems to be treated to more of a hatchet job, where they select some "worst of" moments from her videos and use them to undermine her statements. Similarly, statements from fans are selected to come across as very self-incriminating.

If anybody's anxious to have a look at it, its scheduled to play in Austin, Montreal, and New York over the next several weeks, and it may play elsewhere after that. I have my doubts it will have anything like a major release (1-hour documentaries usually don't), but, is scheduled for video release next month from the Media Education Foundation, but like other MEF releases, are only available to educational institutions at $150-250 per copy. Like the Killing us Softly and Dreamworlds series (also from MEF), its likely this video end up having a long life life in women's studies and "media education" classrooms, fueling misguided outrage for years to come.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The US v. Karen Fletcher

Ren sums up my feelings well:

Ladies and Gentlemen: The US vs Karen Fletcher…

However, unlike Walters there, I do think we should be afraid, thanks.

Now, guess what? I have no desire to read anything Karen Fletcher ever wrote, and yep, the idea of her fiction squicks me out big time…but you know, it was words. Writings. Fiction. No real people, digitally altered or otherwise, involved at all. And let’s look at Ms. Fletcher, really…a woman without any real means, living at home, writing as her sole source of income, for a web site with minimal subscribers. And the government picks her to arrest. Now, see, people boycotted American Psycho by (wealthy) author Brett Easton Ellis. People love the best-selling George R.R. Martin series A Song of Ice & Fire, which has spawned merchandise, a role playing game, a card game, and is full of the rape, torture, imprisonment and murder of people of all ages, including children, a lot of violent sex, incest and all kinds of unsavory stuff…yet no one is arresting Ellis or Martin for their fiction…instead, they go after an unknown, unpopular, not wealthy small time smut writer…I wonder why?

Easy prey, maybe? You think maybe that has something to do with it? The Gov trying to Fight the Obscene Smut!... but taking on someone who really had no chance in hell of actually being able to, oh, fight them back?

And while yeah, I have no desire to read Fletcher’s stories, you can bet your ass this pisses me off and I will defend her right to write them. And of course, sure, some folk are likely to just, once again, accuse me of being some vile, appalling, sadistic, rapist fuck who doesn’t give a shit about anyone because my soulless, male identified self is just so obsessed with my vicious orgasms, but see…you’d be wrong. I do care about something, at least one thing…you gotta give me that…

I care about our 1st Amendment, and how shit like this affects all of us…or a whole shit load of us anyway…

I mean, check the nets, people. Fan-Fic, slash, from manga based to Harry Potter based, there is a shit ton of it out there, and a shit ton of every day people writing it, and a lot of it involves sex with underage people, violence, and even things like rape and murder. I know some of you out there write it, some read it, and a lot of people do other kinds of writing; their deep, dark fantasies, epic level fiction with a great many unsavory or disturbing themes, horror, smut, yaoi, sci-fi, high fantasy, so on, so forth…and it’s likely you, like Fletcher, could be considered easy prey…

And get arrested and tried by the big bad US Government because someone was squicked out by your BDSM fantasy, or hero/heroine in peril tale, or the written evolution of your monstrous, amoral villain. You could get completely hosed for writing things other people find disturbing or don’t like. Even if it cannot be accessed by minors, even if it is only out there for a select crowd…and the way some of this stuff is plastered all over, all public like, on the net…well gee, so many attractive “obscene” targets to chose from, eh?

For writing words….words! No pictures, no real live people, no images…words! And funny that, but I thought one of the things we here in the States were supposed to be real big on and all over was a persons ability to speak and write words…even if other people don’t like them. So see, yeah, something I do care about…a person’s ability to write and speak words, even if other people find them horrific, disturbing, and terrible…because we are supposed to have that right. Even if those words are about sex, or violence, or sex and violence, or rape, or murder, or all kinds of shit that can generally be pretty damn offensive to a whole lot of people.

As a writer this scares me. As a big time fan of free speech, it scares me even more. Being arrested for writing something someone else doesn’t like? Well, that shit should scare you too.
This sort of thing is precisely why all the outcry over visual pornography without similar outcry over words disturbs me. It's as if people think that everyone knows images are bad, whether this be due to assumptions about how they are produced or assumptions about how they induce particularly Pavlovian sexual response, yet everyone also knows words are fine.

I've never understood this distinction, and always felt that unless it was grounded in actual facts about the production conditions of filmed visual pornography that uses live performers, the distinction was untenable. I figured that, culturally, we'd never bother to go after words, but I've still been saying for years that I don't see a big difference, if we leave production conditions out.

And this just says to me that no, there isn't one. That free speech might make us think quickest of words (since "speech" is in the name), but that whatever counts as "speech" is fair game. If certain kinds of pornography are to be erased, then that erasure can and will extend to words as well -- despite that so many of us do see differences between industry-made rape porn (which I gather there's actually little of, from what people actually in the industry say) and our little pet "non-con" Draco!Harry slashfic.

It's all the same, people. If this alarms you -- and I think it should -- it shouldn't alarm you because they finally got to print/text. That was always coming.

And that's why I think a post about this belongs here too.

Barely Legal: My Personal Reflections

The controversy:

My comments: First of all, I don't think I even noticed the picture at Sugasm. I think my first note of it was just "ho-hum, something in a post that looks like it belongs in a sidebar ad *scrolldown*. When I later looked back at it, I liked it some. When I really studied the face of the model on the right, I could both see that she looks young and why some people might be bothered, but also found her face unique looking and a refreshing break from faces that don't appeal to me.

(The woman in the Uncool post? That sort of face, with the wide sparkly grin, is usually sexually unappealing to me, for whatever it's worth. That sort of smile... I'm trying to put into words what puts me off about it, and I can't. I guess for me... it's a kind of smile that makes the sex seem not very... deep? No, I don't want sex to always be meaningful. And I like sex to be silly and fun, so I'm not saying don't smile joyfully or laugh or be silly.

But also, as an SMer I like my sex to be a little scary, a little edgy at least emotionally, a dip into where there be dragons -- whether that's because there's pain or because it's really passionate or because it's emotionally intense or... anything. That kind of Polident smile puts me off. But this is JUST ME, and in no way is supposed to say that the model "means" her smile to "say" these things, or that she's fake, or that she's not smart, or not intense. It's just my explanation of why such a smile is anti-erotic to me.

Because of the "barely legal blogwar", I've been "examining" and trying to figure out if I'm actually secretly gunning for the Lolita-face, revealing that I don't like women who look fully adult. I worried this might be the case, an unconscious prejudice against women who are too mature or confident-looking. I decided that's probably not it -- though I will freely admit that as someone who's sexually dominant, I have and do eroticize certain kinds of innocence, which are not there in the other picture. Make of that whatever you will.)

But my main point was: Barely Legal porn, and how I feel about it. When I was younger, I used to be deeply angry that it existed. The mere thought of it would trigger me. I once asked a lover what men saw in it. According TO HIM, the fantasy was about remembering one's first stirrings of desire in adolescence, when sexual desire is new and particularly intense. According TO HIM, the idea was not that HE would want the cheerleader because she's naive, but that he would use it to remember first seeing attractive people dressed in those uniforms. He also reminded me repeatedly that cheerleaders are athletes and not necessarily ditzes, and that while associating the two things is culturally popular, it's not what HE HIMSELF really thought of when he thought about them. He saw them as out of his league, perfect -- smart AND athletic, the marriage of two poles, while he was just a geek.

While I now find that answer reasonable (though I think he's a lot more feminist than many men, and than many pornographers choose to be), at the time the whole thing bothered me so bad I cried for an hour. He was bewildered? Why would I?

And I realized that for me, it's personal. When others were "sweet sixteen," I was in a body cast, a wheelchair, changing bloody dressings, wondering if my scars would ever stop hurting. It dawned on me that I was less concerned about what bothers many people -- the youthful look of the women and the possible connections to pedophilia -- and more about my own lack of a childhood. While some other girls got to experience sexual awakenings that were fun and exploratory, I was fantasizing about SM to keep myself from drowning in overwhelming, and very real, physical and emotional pain. I did not trust anyone who was not like me. If you weren't a sadomasochist, or at least someone who flirted with such themes, no matter who you were and what you liked, you were the Enemy.

So the only images of teen sexuality that I was comfortable with, if I was with any at all, were ones like my own. Dark, sinister, gothy. If it wasn't Serious Business -- if it didn't involve, somewhere, the piper being paid, some kind of confession or pain or paying the price for inhabiting your body -- it made me angry and bitter... because it made me envious.

I envied "people" (including characters in images) whose sexuality wasn't hard, tough, dark, crisscrossed with battle scars. "Innocent" sexualities dredged up my rage not centrally because I feared women being taken advantage of, but because I felt ugly, tattered, dented up by comparison. Although I had hardly any sexual experience until the very ripe age of 21, I was already old-souled. Even my shiny-new, "cherry-popping" explorations were the explorations of an old soul.

Now this is not to say that my sexuality was bad. I don't consider my SM leanings to be the result of the damage. I think they were always there, but that they went from a marked leaning toward dominance and curiosity about erotic pain ("is that POSSIBLE? If it were, it'd be really COOL!") to a major, and necessary, coping mechanism when I found myself sexually developing in the midst of terrible pain.

And so images of youthful sexuality that made it about eagerness, curiosity, any such that didn't involve paying some piper somewhere, made me instantly suspicious. And when I saw critiques that said "oh, she's depicted as too innocent" well, if the shoe fit, wear it. Because "too innocent" was me before I found SM. And if these eager sorority party girls weren't making the men pay in blood for a look, they hadn't transformed like me, and must be naive.

So... now. Yeah, the critique of barely legal isn't what I thought it was. And I can see the new one. But the thing is, it doesn't -- rightly or wrongly -- have the same force to me as the other one. Maybe it's because I too eroticize some kinds of "innocence", as long as it's a smart kind of innocence, an innocence that learns and plays along, rather than one that's defenseless.

Maybe it's because "mature vanilla" isn't what I grew into, so "mature vanilla" was always a little suspect to me until I matured enough not to expect everyone to be the same. Maybe it's because there's still a grain in me that thinks "mature vanilla" is naive in a bad way, is the sexuality of people who've gotten older, but haven't yet seen pain like I saw. Maybe part of me, deep in my unconscious, believes that people who really knew the horror in the world would have more of an SM streak... even though I've long since realized that's irrational.

But my big turning point came when I started to watch Hentai. I'd always shunned it, on the theory that I just didn't like the whole youthful-as-erotic idea. But I found myself, as I usually am, intellectually curious about the genre as a kind of erotic media. And I watched some. And I remember looking at a youthfully drawn girl, in a schoolgirl skirt, and suddenly feeling a pang of desire before I could think to stop it.

And suddenly something changed in my head: how can I condemn this... when this is me too?

So that's where I am with it now. "I'd rather be a creep than a hypocrite" is, well, really the whole of it.

Lesson for the Day: Never comment about a blog war unless you're prepared to become the focus of it

Seeing the way discussion has degenerated and the ill-will that has formed over the last several days around "Lolitagate" is the kind of stuff that makes me want to throw in the towel and stop blogging altogether. It really underlines the limitations of online communication and the minefield you step into when you start discussing your own sexual likes and dislikes, especially in a milieu devoted to sexual politics.

First, I've really got to give at another apology to Caroline, especially, and also Tom, though he hasn't responded, for what might have seemed like a personal attack. It was never meant that way. I'm doubly apologetic that my post apparently brought ignorant trolls to your blog. (And if anybody who went over to Caroline's blog and called her something along the lines of a "lazy, superficial, careless, frigid bitch" is reading this – Fuck Off!)

Also, it seems like there's some factional shit among the polys and sex-pozzes going on here that I wasn't aware of – apologies for stepping into the middle of that, too.

At the same time, a lot of the anger directed at me is based on such a gross misinterpretation of what I said and to whom I was speaking, I hardly know where to start.

First, the irony here is both Caroline and I feel that neither has even bothered to read what the other has said before responding, and hence there's a lot of general pissed-offness over gross misinterpretation of what was actually said. For my part, I was critiquing the anti-"barely legal" porn arguments of several people, but somehow, it was interpreted as a focused attack on Caroline. I also used a bad choice of words, calling their arguments "radfemmish", though I probably should have had the good sense to know that in the sex-poz blogosphere, those are fighting words. This unfortunately was very quickly turned into "you called Caroline a radfem", which I did not do and is pretty illustrative of the kind of rhetoric inflation that takes place in blog arguments.

If I was focused on any one post, it was actually the initial post by Tom (who's writing I also generally like, BTW), which had kind of a finger wagging and moral absolutist tone that I found distasteful, and its pretty clear from the comments, I'm not the only one.

I was critical of Caroline's argument insofar as she was shoring up Tom's position, but I think her posts on the topic were actually rather peripheral to my argument. However, I also pointed to them as "characteristically thoughtful and reflective", which seems to have been lost on most readers. Still, I perhaps didn't read Caroline closely enough to note that this was a personal statement about why this kind of thing squicks her out based on her life history and experiences, and its now being interpreted that I'm telling Caroline and others that they have no right to feel the way she does, or that I'm blasting them for not taking a YayPorn all-the-time party-line.

This is where the discussion really becomes unproductive, because I'm hearing a lot of rhetoric to the effect that me, and other commentators who have been critical of Tom, Caroline, and others on this are guilty of trying to "silence" them. But this argument goes nowhere, because I can certainly point to the level of invective against me just for daring to state an opinion as definitely silencing. But, obviously, an endless round of arguing just who is trying to silence whom actually accomplishes nothing. Either discuss something of substance or agree to disagree and move on.

The other thing that really stands out is that when you start writing about your own reactions to images of real people, what a minefield that opens up, and I think that minefield can become a veritable Korean DMZ when start throwing things like feminism or pornography into it. I think its very easy to read into images, or people's reaction to images, "you're ugly", "the people you're attracted to are ugly", "she's prettier than you", "you should be turned on by this, and not by that" (and, boy, does discussion of "feminist porn" often come across that way), and, of course, "you're a pervert", which is where I think a lot people are see some insinuation of in this discussion. Which I think actually gets back to Caroline's point about how you respond to an image being very tied up in your history, experiences, and sense of self.

Case in point – a post by Soulhuntre on some controversial images of fat women that were being discussed around the feminist blogosphere. (And, yeah, there are a lot issues between Soulhuntre and a whole lot of people, but I'll put that aside for the moment.) Soulhuntre reacted to the controversy with a kind of "um, so does this mean I'm supposed to pretend to like fat chicks" followed by some other less than kind remarks, while Belledame, quite understandably, took his comments as a swipe at her appearance. And the thing is, I don't see either of them as wrong in their subjective reaction to the image, or how the image was being spoken of. But I do see Soulhuntre as being an ass in the way he wrote about the images – a lot of women look like this and a lot of people are attracted to them, and trashing them as self-evidently ugly was really insulting. At the same time, I really find it bothersome when I see some feminist discourse insinuates that this is the kind of women that people must be attracted to, less they be guilty of fat-phobia and "looksism".

In my case, when I look at the Luna and Mina images, I'm reminded of a couple girlfriends I had back in my 20s. (Actually some pretty key relationships, in fact.) Not in exact appearance, but having the same skinny build and being quite young-looking for their age, yep, definitely. And you know what, I'm not going to apologize one little bit for finding them beautiful and sexy then, or thinking, some 15 or so years later, that young women with a similar appearance are beautiful. And I'm certainly not going to hypocritically jump on board with some party line about just how fucking horrible it is that anybody would be turned on by somebody like that. On the other hand, I can understand where some women are coming from, who look at that image and see what was probably going through the head of every creepy guy who ever leered at them in high school.

This is where I get really impatient with the accusation that you can't criticize porn, which is kind of a cheap accusation and not where I'm coming from. I do, however, think that when you discuss porn or any other kind of imagery, you're really not just discussing porn, you're discussing things like sexual fantasies, appearance, self-image and so on. I think it goes back to why a lot of us consider ourselves to be "pro-porn", there's a hell of a lot more to the issue than just pornography, or even freedom of expression. As much as radfems might want to write it off with the line "porn is not sex", the fact is, its very much an expression of underlying sexuality, stuff that would still be there even if porn didn't exist.

I don't think there's any way of discussing it without stepping on people's toes, really, and I'm not saying that people shouldn't have these discussions. On the other hand, to defend oneself with "I have a right to my subjective opinion of that image" (which is totally valid, in itself), and then get really upset that somebody else might have a subjective reaction that doesn't agree with yours – that's a contradiction, to put it mildly.

Whither Sugarbank?

As an aside, anybody know what happened to Sugarbank? Its been down for several days now. It would be unfortunate if that were gone permanently.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Barely Legal Blogwars

It looks like there's kind of a small blogwar brewing in the sex-poz blogosphere around the issue of "barely legal" porn. This started when Viviane of Viviane's Sex Carnival posted one of the Sugasm feeds from Sugarbank, which was headed by a featured photo of "Mima and Luna", two very young-looking models from the glamour-porn site Errotica Archives. (I wanted to see if Sam Sugar had anything to say about this, but Sugarbank seems to have completely gone down all of a sudden – hopefully its not permanent.)

This was very upsetting to sex-poz blogger Tom Paine (who apparently has other differences with Viviane) of Polymorophously Perverse who's "protective father instinct" kicked in and called Viviane on the carpet for posting "pseudo-kiddie porn", which led to all manner of disagreement from the commentariat there, though Caroline, of Polymorophously Perverse and Un-Cool, offered Tom some support and expressed her discomfort with the image in a couple characteristically thoughtful and reflective posts on the topic.

The interesting thing, though, is that hardly anybody thinks the 2257 disclaimer on the site is inaccurate, and people who have problems with the pictures are upset over the models adolescent appearance, which apparently some people feel is dangerous because it undermines the idea that teenagers can't give meaningful consent or "sexualizes" teenage girls. In other words, you have some sex-pozzes sounding uncharacteristically radfemmish advancing a sort of "social harm" argument, about porn expressing a dangerous idea which might influence viewers in the wrong way; the kind of argument that, in a different context, most of these people would probably argue against.

My own stance on this (which I'm sure I'll be torn a new one for) is that just because somebody who's a legal adult looks a few years shy of an arbitrary age limit doesn't suddenly make the images anything remotely close to kiddie porn. Second, I don't have a whole hell of a lot of sympathy with the idea that porn like this represents such a dangerous idea that it ought not be produced. That's not to say actual under-18 teenagers should be doing porn, of course, but I'm not against porn that expresses the idea of sexy teenagers, either by use of young looking models, or through drawings or animation (such as hentai manga or anime). I can see where images like this might piss people off, especially given the current moral panic over the "sexualization" of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, but I don't think its an idea so heinous that it should be driven out of the marketplace of ideas (though to be fair, I don't think anybody has so far argued that the state should step in an censor such images).

And when people get so upset about a particular model, my first instinct is to try and find out who the models in question actually are. Its the dark-haired model, Mima, in the photoset that people seem to be most upset about. She's somebody I thought I'd recognized, and sure enough, its none other than the (usually-blonde) Miriama K, an already young-looking model who's ungodly-large doe eyes make her look way younger than her actual age. According to her Myspace page (which I'm assuming is genuine), among other sources, Miriama is a 21 year-old professional model from Bratislava, Slovakia. She's been active since late 2006, which would have made her about 19 when she started modeling. She's actually been all over Central European web porn circuit over the last couple years, doing both softcore and hardcore, and from some of the photos on her Myspace page, it looks like she models for non-porn stock photography as well. Could she pass for 14-17? Definitely. Is she anywhere close to that age? No.

I could find less about the other model, Luna, who typically goes by Judita A or Lea T, but I've seen photos like the one in question where she looks young, and others where she looks well into her 20s. (Amazing, what differences in appearance a few differences in lighting and camera angles will bring about.) I'm guessing, if anything, she's around the same age as Miriama or a few years older.

And as an aside, I see a lot of stuff come up in the feminist and sex-poz blogosphere about young-looking girls, but nobody seems to notice there's an entirely parallel genre in gay porn. Do a Google image search for "twinks" and you'll see what I mean. It could have to do with the fact that gay porn is hugely off of a lot of people's radar, to the point where most discussion of porn, even among sex-positives, seems to mention it only as an afterthought. But I also think that young-looking guys being sexual just don't get people quite so upset as sexy images of young-looking girls, and to my mind, that speaks to the fact that a lot of this concern might be coming from an all-too-traditional "lock up your daughters" mentality.

Addendum: Anastasia from "Sex, Life, and Frilly Bits" weighed in with a thoughtful post on "Youthful Erotica & The End of the Civilisation?". Nothing to add except, "what she said".

Further addendum: It appears that Caroline, a blogger who I have a great deal of respect for, is now feeling singled-out, maligned, and mischaracterized by some of the statements I've made above, and is really quite upset about the whole thing. Her arguments about her discomfort with the images acknowledge that a lot of this is gut-level revulsion on her part, and she does acknowledge a certain degree of contradictory feelings on the subject, given her other writing on "extreme porn". For my part, I didn't do the most perfect job of summarizing the argument taking place. (Actually, I challenge anybody to try summing up the nuances of an argument between multiple parties in one or two paragraphs and do a good job of it.) If you're interested in this issue and want to know who's arguing what, I strongly recommend following the links I've given to Caroline, Tom, and Anastasia's posts (and their respective comments) for a clearer picture of what arguments are being made and by whom.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Against Intolerance: A critique of Diana Russell's Against Pornography

By sheer coincidence with the post about Against Pornography the other day, I was going through some of my very old files I had archived and came across this article Avedon Carol of Feminists Against Censorship had sent me in 1997.

It was a review and critique by Jen Durbin (a sex-poz Bay Area academic who was a correspondent of FAC at the time) of Against Pornography, and was a good overview of the weaknesses of that work. The article was published in Spectator, a winning mix of softcore photography, hardcore fiction, and insightful sex-positive/pro-porn writing. Spectator was the sexy offshoot of the perhaps better known underground tabloid The Berkeley Barb, though Spectator outlasted the Barb by some 25 years. The magazine was headed by Kat Sunlove, who is probably better known for her lobbying as part of the Free Speech Coalition.

The Spectator folded in 2005 and went under soon after, but thanks to the miracle of the Wayback Machine, its archive of articles (also here), spanning from the late 90s to mid-2000s, is still viewable and well worth checking out.

Anyway, without further ado:

"When a Scientist Stacks the Deck: A Review of Diana E. H. Russell's Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm"
by Jen Durbin
Spectator Magazine #835 (Sept 30-Oct 6, 1994)

Imagine a literary scholar writing a book about the sonnet in order to give the general public, many of whom have never read a sonnet, an opportunity to make up their own minds about this verse form. This hypothetical scholar first defines "sonnet" as a poem about a horse. He and a dozen research assistants spend eighteen years sifting the canon of English literature for poems about horses. Some of these poems may have fourteen lines; others may not. The number of lines is irrelevant to his study. At the end of this period of extensive research, he publishes his findings: his long-awaited scholarly book proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that sonnets are about horses. He even includes over a hundred poems as evidence.

As farfetched as this hypothetical anecdote might seem, it provides a frightfully accurate analogy for Diana Russell's new book, Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm (Russell Publications, 1993). She calls her book a "scholarly work" (p. xii), but it breaks every rule of good scholarship, which, if it can't be original and well written, should at the very least be unbiased and logical. As a teacher of pornography, I can sympathize with Russell's opening statement: "I have come to dislike talking about the effects of pornography with people who have not seen it for themselves" (p.vii). If there's one thing I dislike even more, however, it's talking about pornography with people whose only exposure to porn has been a narrow band within the broad spectrum of pornographic material, carefully pre-selected by the anti-porn feminists.

Just like the fraudulent scholar who looked for horses everywhere, Russell begins by re-defining pornography so that she can pre-determine the results of her search. She sets out to look for "material that combines sex and/or the exposure of genitals with abuse or degradation in a manner that appears to endorse, condone, or encourage such behavior" (p. 3). Not surprisingly, that's exactly what she finds.

The 108 images she reproduces in her book come from the porn collections of such groups as OAP (Organizing Against Pornography) SVAW (Stopping Violence Against Women), WAP (Women Against Pornography), SOAP (Students Organizing Against Pornography), and of course WAVPM (Women Against Violence in Media and Pornography). The last-named group, which Russell helped to found, was established in 1976. It has taken her and her comrades in arms nearly twenty years to collect the violent images she reprints in her book. A serious academic study would have attempted to provide a more even-handed survey of the field. If it took dozens of women this long to collect a handful of violent images, just imagine all the benign or neutral images they must have viewed and then discarded in the course of their search.

Russell does attempt to contextualize her sample of pornographic visuals by introducing some statistics, but none of them are too impressive. For instance, in Penthouse and Playboy in 1977, "5 of the cartoons and 10 of the pictorials were sexually violent" (p. 9). Of course, it doesn't take a scientific study to estimate that by far the bulk of the images in both magazines were just plain sexual, but who wants to analyze the most representative kinds of porn images anyway? Since no one has been able to prove that pornographic images are predominantly violent, Russell has decided to modify the findings of some existing studies to suit her purposes. She draws on the Canadian Criminologist T.S. Palys for some fairly significant percentages of sexually aggressive scenes in sexually-oriented videos. What she doesn't say is that out of the 150 videos sampled by Palys, 58 were not x-rated, and 25 were specifically (not randomly) chosen for their violent content. It's as if our literary scholar, finding that epics were far more likely to feature horses, decided to beef up his case by throwing statistics about epics in with his statistics about sonnets. Even worse, Russell barely mentions Palys' main point --"the unexpected finding that 'adult' videos have significantly greater absolute number of depictions of sexual aggression per movie than triple-X videos" --a point that probably will not surprise regular viewers of R-rated and X-rated videos.

Among Palys' actual findings, those ignored by Russell, were the following: "the triple X videos had a higher frequency of mutual (i.e. egalitarian) sexual depictions than the adult videos (72 versus 12.9)," sexual aggression was more prevalent in adult than in X-rated videos, and the aggressive depictions were significantly more severe in the adult videos.1 Palys critiques previous studies for leaving "concerned individuals with the potentially misleading impression that those who produce 'pornography' hold the monopoly on violent and sexually violent materials" (Palys, p. 33). One can only speculate about the reasons Russell chose to ignore his warnings about creating a "misleading impression."

How does Diana Russell create the misleading impression that pornography is predominantly violent and degrading towards women? Let me count the ways. In the interests of brevity, I will cite only one instance of each tactic (or two if they are impossible to resist).

Faulty logic: On page 114 she writes, "Because it is important to know the proclivities and the state of mind of those who read and view pornography, I will start by discussing some of the data on males' propensity to rape." Spectator readers will be interested to know that as a group they are indistinguishable, in Russell's mind in any case, from rapists. Wouldn't it be a little more scientific/scholarly to start with a group of consumers of porn (using a group of people who don't consume porn as a control group) if one were interested in analyzing the "proclivities and state of mind of those who read and view porn"?

Misleading rhetorical strategies: On page 20 she writes that there is "reason for great concern when those who feel aroused by pornography (or racism) become advocates or defenders of it." Here she implies that defending one's right to view or read arousing material is the same as joining the Ku Klux Klan.

Baseless claims: Russell cites a study by Malamuth, in which subjects were "randomly assigned to view either a rape version or a mutually consenting version of a slide-audio presentation." She justifies using this study to pillory pornography because "the rape version of the slide-audio presentation is typical of what is seen in pornography" (p. 124). Of course, anyone who has viewed much pornography knows that the most common scenario features the willing, even nymphomaniacal woman, not the female victim of forced sex. Russell's flawed premise allows her to pretend that rape is a typical feature of porn.

Misleading categories: Throughout the book, she lumps bondage in with violence. For instance, she reprints a cartoon featuring a smiling woman in a dog collar and leash (p. 23). How does Russell know the woman did not choose bondage? Another cartoon shows a woman tied spread eagle on the bed. The man who has tied her up asks, "Comfy?" Here's Russell's interpretation: "This cartoon perpetuates the idea that women enjoy bondage" (p. 36). Of course, many do. Need I add that throughout the book she makes no distinction between consensual and non-consensual acts?

Faulty assumptions: And who's to say that a man looking at the cartoons above or watching video sex scenes always identifies with the aggressor? Carol Clover, in her book about slasher films, Men Women and Chainsaws, has shown that males in the audience often identify with on-screen females, and vice versa. Indeed, in one of the studies Russell cites, researchers found that male college students and men living in inner-city housing projects found four categories of violence arousing. One of the arousing categories was "a female killing a male" (p. 146).

Lip service: At various points throughout the book, Russell will make a reasonable statement. For instance, she writes "What is objectionable about pornography, then, is its abusive and degrading portrayal of females and female sexuality, not its sexual content or explicitness" (p. 5). Elsewhere she admits that by the definition of simple causation, "pornography clearly does not cause rape, as it seems safe to assume that some pornography consumers do not rape women, and that many rapes are unrelated to pornography" (p. 119). However, since she does not provide any examples of sexual content that is not abusive or degrading, and since her purpose is to implicate pornography as one of the primary causes of rape, these brief admissions can be seen as mere lip service.

Ignoring the obvious interpretation of others' findings: In making a case that viewers imitate what they see on screen, she cites the seemingly shocking statistic that "Among the junior high school students [in Jennings Bryant's study] 72 of the males reported that 'they wanted to try some sexual experiment or sexual behavior that they had seen in their initial exposure to X-rated material'" (p. 126). This finding will assuredly be shocking to any reader who has taken Russell's word about what "typical porn" is like, but anyone who has viewed porn for him- or herself might have a different interpretation: most 7th and 8th graders have not experienced sex, and it is not surprising that they would some day like to try intercourse (or, God forbid!, fellatio or cunnilingus), the real staple of heterosexual porn.

Failure to critique the studies she cites: She quotes from a study that confirms "that exposure to non-violent pornography causes masculine sex-typed males, in contrast to androgynous males, to view and treat women as a sex object" (p.132). The flaw in this study lies in the initial classification of the participants. The term "masculine sex-typed males" was defined as men who "encode all cross-sex interactions in sexual terms and all members of the opposite sex in terms of sexual attractiveness." An astute reader--one who can translate jargon into plain English--will have noticed that by definition this group of men viewed women as sex objects before they even participated in the study.

Ignoring the findings or premises of others' studies: Russell makes use of Dietz and Evans' statistics about the increase in bondage and domination imagery on the cover of heterosexual porn magazines. She neglects to mention, however, that the authors of this study saw it as an "unobtrusive measure of the prevalence of the corresponding fantasy among consumers," since "the imagery of pornography tends to correspond to the preexisting fantasy images of the consumer."2 In other words, they posit that pornography is an effect, whereas Russell takes the opposite stance, arguing that it is a cause.

Citing irrelevant studies: She cites a study by Malamuth and Check, in which students viewed a "feature-length film that portrayed violence against women as being justifiable and having positive consequences (Swept Away or The Getaway)" (p.134). Their findings are of course irrelevant in a book called Against Pornography, since the films they used are rated R, and any actions taken by fired-up readers of Russell's book are unlikely to be directed against The UA or Landmark cinemas.

Ignoring or glossing over points that run counter to her theories: She admits that "Psychologists James Check and Neil Malamuth have provided experimental evidence that pornography that is supplemented with sound educational information does not induce the negative effects that would otherwise occur" (p. 17). However, she ignores the ramifications of this finding: it is important to make porn more accessible, not less. Families who will not freak out if little Johnny or Jenny is watching porn will be more likely to have a chance to discuss the videos with their kids, and to use them as an opportunity to educate.

As a teacher, I of course believe in the power of education. And I believe that the best education succeeds not in transmitting the biases of the teacher into the minds of the students, but rather in teaching the students to ferret out faulty logic wherever it resides, and to open their minds to truth wherever it may be found. And the best education of all succeeds in opening the teacher's mind too. In that spirit, I turn from my point-by-point critique of Russell's methods in order to attempt to reach an unbiased perspective on the issues she raises. I don't want readers to come away from this review article with the impression that I am just as biased, and just as likely to ignore evidence that runs counter to my pet theory, as Russell is.

There's a little gold sticker on the cover of Russell's book that reads "WARNING: Some of the visuals in this book may cause distress." It turns out that I am not so desensitized to sexual violence that I was completely immune to that distress. Certainly the album cover depicting a just-raped woman next to the graffiti "Guns N Roses Was Here" disturbed me: I couldn't help but think of the young fans of that group, who are being taught a less-than-subtle lesson about rape. Given my own personal history, I also was disturbed by the ad in Playboy (for Oui magazine) depicting an adolescent-looking nude girl in handcuffs above the caption "How one family solved its discipline problem." I don't think it's possible to argue that Playboy caused the national epidemic of child sexual abuse, partly because incest existed for centuries before Playboy came on the market. But I do think it would be naive to argue that the media plays no role in the overall climate of misogyny in the United States today.

Given the fact that pornography is far less prevalent and accessible than television, advertising, mainstream movies, and billboards, why do radical feminists such as Russell focus their attacks on pornography? One argument is that the conjunction between sex and violence is especially compelling. To put it crudely, one might compare male viewers of video porn to Pavlov's dogs: they are trained to ejaculate at the sight of sexual violence towards women. Russell cites a 1985 study by Donnerstein, in which participants were divided into three groups: one saw X-rated movies depicting sexual assault; the second saw X-rated movies showing only consenting sex; the third saw R-rated sexually violent movies. Then they all saw a reenactment of a real rape trial. "Subjects who had seen the R-rated movies: (1) rated the rape victim as significantly more worthless, (2) rated her injury as significantly less severe, and (3) assigned greater blame to her for being raped than did the subjects who had not seen the films [i.e. the control group]. In contrast, these results were not seen for the X-rated non-violent films. However, the results were much the same for violent X-rated films, despite the fact that the R-rated material was 'much more graphically violent'" (p. 137). There is no question in my mind that if I had my druthers, the media would not pre-dispose potential jurors to underestimate a rape victim's worth or her injuries.

Still, Donnerstein's study also suggests that the degree of explicitness of the sex scenes in the movies was not a factor in the participants' responses to the rape trial. Since the ratio of sexual assault scenes to consensual sex scenes is much higher in Hollywood films than it is in porn videos (for evidence, see the study by Palys above, or just pay attention when you go to the movies), the unavoidable conclusion seems to be that despite their protestations, writers such as Russell actually are attacking sexuality.

Intentionally or not, Russell is adding to the climate of misogyny. She notes for instance that "Negative consequences to males who exploit women in this situation [i.e. in bondage] are improbable since women who are violated while in bondage are unlikely to report such abuses to the police." She is right: most sex workers know they will automatically be assumed guilty by the judicial system. But the more Russell contributes to a climate of sexual repression, the harder it will be to obtain legal redress for crimes against women who work in the sex industry.

It's hard to object to her recommendations, since she provides none. She does not seem to be recommending that pornography be fought via the courts; in fact, she goes to some lengths to distinguish herself from MacKinnon and Dworkin, who needed to use a legal definition of pornography in order to write their legislation. She repeatedly claims to be against censorship, although it is true that she does so only in the context of defending her own right to free speech. A rave review just inside the cover, in which Nikki Craft writes that she was "moved to tear up several hundred Hustler magazines in convenience stores and throughout Santa Cruz," might be interpreted as an implied recommendation. Anyone who reads this book out of context (of the feminist debate about pornography or the full spectrum of pornographic materials) is likely to take matters into their own hands, and the target will be a symptom (for instance Hustler magazine) of our social ills rather than an underlying cause (such as economic inequality between the genders).

In lieu of author's recommendations, I will make a suggestion of my own. On the copyright page Russell prohibits reproduction of any part of the book, specifying that "the only exception to these rules applies to feminists dedicated to the fight against pornography, who are welcome to copy this material free of charge in pursuit of their anti-pornography work." This is especially ironic in light of the fact that, by her own admission, she stole these images from the pornographers who held the copyrights in the first place. In her preface she admits to the following violation: "I did not attempt to obtain permission from the pornographers for several reasons. I didn't want to support the pornography industry by giving them money. . . " In light of the fact that one of the most popular tactics used against the porn industry is to tie up all its resources in legal battles in the hopes that the production companies will go bankrupt, I have a fitting response to Russell's book to suggest: the pornographers whose images she has stolen should consider suing her for copyright violations. It would be interesting to see if the courts agreed that her "right to free speech" (which, according to Russell, "includes the right to publish the material necessary to show that pornography is harmful to women" p. x) overrides publishers' and photographers' and artists' rights to fair payment for the reproduction of their work.

On a more serious note, I would like to say that a feminist writer who has done such important work in the areas of rape and child sexual abuse might have been expected to have chosen her target more carefully. Pornography is not the culprit here. If feminists are to make real strides towards stopping violence against women, we will need a more realistic assessment of the root causes of the problem, and a more effective plan for bringing about true social change.

1 Palys T. (1986). Testing the common wisdom: the social content of video pornography. Canadian Psychology, 27(1):27–35. (p 27–29)

2 Dietz P, Evans B. (1982). Pornographic imagery and prevalence of paraphilia. American Journal of Psychiatry 139:1493–1495. (p 1423; italics mine.)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

SPC Cracks

Well, well. That didn't take long.

After the possible applicability of federal statute 18 U.S.C. 2257 to the vicious lies and callous exploitation of Stop Porn Culture!'s slide show, previously available at the click of a mouse to anyone with internet access regardless of age or identity, became widespread on various blogs, the fearless perpetrators of this agit-prop monstrosity appear to have discovered the importance of firewalls.

As we've previously pointed out here before, the presentation as offered on SPC's web site carried no age warning, disclaimer or keeper of records information as required by federal law for all publicly disseminated sexually explicit images, despite the fact that 38 of its 140 slides displayed such images, comprising a total of 88 instances of blatant non-compliance. Under the provisions of the statute, each instance of such non-compliance is punishable by up to five years imprisonment, for a total of 440 years accruing to the creators of this dog-and-pony show if convicted.

Since this issue was raised, Stop Porn Culture!'s noisy claque has been all over the web, including here, offering lame excuses for their illegal behavior, and predictably counter-attacking with accusations of censorship and silencing. Those of us who took the position that federal law should apply equally to all never suggested that Stop Porn Culture! cease offering its program or stating its opinions. We merely proposed that they either bring their presentation into conformity with the same standards imposed on lawful pornographers by obtaining documentation certifying that the images shown were of adults over the age of 18 who had given consent for the use of their likenesses, and disclosing where and by whom such records were kept, or remove only the non-compliant images in question, leaving two thirds of the existing presentation untouched.

Nevertheless, the Usual Suspects have insisted that Stop Porn Culture! enjoys some special dispensation to proffer the sexually explicit images of X-rated entertainers in a false and derogatory light, exploiting those performers for the grand purpose of helping, as SPC co-founder Gail Dines put it, "destroy the sex industry," and with it the livelihoods of all sex performers. They've tried, as always, to make it all about the actions of others while taking no responsibility for their own. As I've suggested elsewhere, if they had chosen to openly and admittedly defy federal law by making this show of which they are so proud available to one and all as an act of civil disobedience and accepted the legal consequences that might have ensued, they would at least have demonstrated the courage of their convictions, literally and figuratively. Instead, they've engaged in all manner of legalistic nit-picking and pettifoggery to get around the possible liabilities to which they have been exposing themselves.

Evidently, genuine civil disobedience requires a courage they lack. After whatever internal or external consultations among themselves or with their attorneys, the organizers of SPC have erected rudimentary firewalls around access to the stolen images still included in the presentation, which is now accessible by download only after the individual attempting to obtain it has contacted the site administrators and been issued a password. The shortened version previously offered in the clear with a simple tap of the mouse has been replaced by a short statement reading: "The slideshow has been temporarily taken offline. We apologize for any inconvenience."

They have a lot more to apologize for than that, including the libelous abuse of known performers who appear in the show and the small but not insignificant possibility that they may, by hijacking sexually explicit material of unknown origins for which they had no documentation, have displayed images of minors or images obtained by non-consensual means, and increased the likelihood of such images being shown to minors by posting the program without proper warnings on their web site and showing it on college campuses to audiences whose ages they have not bothered to verify on entry.

That these professional anti-porn activists, who make good livings off their writing, speaking and teaching activities toward the suppression of freedom of expression would choose to go underground with their despicable propaganda is hardly surprising. They have a lot to lose by risking the kinds of criminal sanctions pornographers must contemplate every day on the job. That, unlike lawful pornographers, Stop Porn Culture! can't comply with the the requirements of 2257 because they've stolen the copyrighted material they employ, has clearly put their own freedom in jeopardy, as opposed to merely jeopardizing the freedoms of consenting adults as they would prefer to do. That, it would seem, has given them some pause.

For this, every responsible citizen should be grateful. Not just those who believe sexually explicit entertainment made by and for consenting adults should remain available to those who may legally possess it, but everyone who cares that ONLY consenting adults should be involved in either the creation or consumption of such materials can feel some relief at the removal of this irresponsible display from a site readily viewed by minors. That is all well and good.

But it is no cause for celebration or complacency. Rest assured that the SPC slide show will continue to be distributed and shown wherever, whenever and to whomever its creators can put it on, so long as doing so exposes them to no possible repercussions. They will now go one propagating their falsehoods just as illegally in whatever situations seem adequately protected for their purposes.

Which is why the campaign to make Stop Porn Culture! obey the law must not end here. Those non-compliant images, and the individuals harmed by them, will remain in circulation until the presenters are called to account. They can and should be obliged to produce the required documentation by any group or institution where the presentation is offered before it is shown, and if that documentation cannot be produced, the images must either be removed or the presentation prevented.

The choice is stark and simple: make your case legally or accept the consequences. The show may have been temporarily concealed from casual viewing by the general public, but its continued circulation in its present form remains entirely illicit and should not be permitted until minimal legal standards are met. The task of holding anti-porn activists to the same legal restrictions imposed on pornographers falls to every citizen who believes in equal treatment under the law.

This isn't over yet. Not be a long shot. Still to be heard from are the known performers defamed in this vile spectacle, who have a unique, direct and personal interest in this misuse of their images, as do the legal producers and owners of the content that can be identified. And at future campus showings and other public offerings of this scurrilous and shameful example of hate speech, the organizers should be confronted and law enforcement officials made aware.

No one in this society, whatever justification is offered, stands above the law. Pornographers recognize this. Their opponents must be made to do the same.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Maggie Hays Goes Off The Deep End...Into A Shallow Manure Pit

There is madness, and then there is sheer insanity.

And then...there is Maggie Hays...the Don Quixote of antiporn "feminist" activists.

This woman is giving new meaning to the term "zealot". Actually, she's raised the bar for paranoia and mindless demogaugery so high that not even Olympic pole vaulters can even scale her heights.

If you think I'm kidding, just go over to her "official" blog Against Pornography and just try toattempt to make it through this recent screed she posted on the dire threat of the "porno-iarchy". At least, try to do so with a straight face.

Oh...and it comes complete with sterling endorsements of Stop Porn Culture, Bob Jensen's slide show, Melissa Fairley's pseudoscience, the usual crackpot, cooked up stats, and, as always is the case with Maggie, the standard boiled over the top boilerplate.

Oh...and while you are there, you might want to click on the tag she has marked, "'Sex Work' Advocates". And when you do, please note how many times Maggie actually links to authentic sex worker activists not totally dominated by her preferred ideology. (Hint: somewhere between the cities of Slim and None....more towards None's outer limits.) Gee, least we here at BPPA do link your side freely and allow our readers to check out opposing views and think for themselves, rather than just feed them the spiked Kool-Aid/PowerAde. And at least, we actually ALLOW antiporn viewpoints to be expressed within comments.

A real piece of work, she is.